If I were asked to choose the best evangelical authors of our times, I would definitely put Philip Yancey (b. 1949.) near the top. His insights are deep, and his style most interesting. As most gifted authors, Yancey can really tell a story. Both the number and the variety of well-known evangelicals who wrote endorsements to this book are evidence of how highly esteemed Yancey is. They include Larry Crabb, Brennan Manning, J.I. Packer, Tony Campolo, Robert A. Seiple, Jill Briscoe, Mark Hatfield, Gordon MacDonald, and Chuck Colson.
I love Colson’s endorsement: “Philip Yancey is one of the most engaging and convicting writers in the Christian world. Once again he has produced a work with something in it to make everybody mad.” Yes, this probably was a very controversial book to some when it was first published in 1997, but I believe it was prophetic and needed to written, and it still needs to be read today. Some of you may have read it a couple decades ago, but it is still relevant even if some of Yancey’s illustrations are dated.
Yancey grew up in the deep South, in Atlanta, GA, in the fifties and sixties. According to his own testimony, his home church was not only racist, but extremely legalistic. To top it off he attended a Bible college in the South that was full of rules and hypocrisy. Yancey was hurt by his background, but amazingly he did not turn his back on the Christian faith. In my opinion, however, this book was written partially out of his own discovery of grace amidst a mostly graceless heritage.
The author begins the book with a powerful story of a prostitute. It was shared with him by a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago. After listening to her sad story, this friend asked her if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. She cried, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
The writer recounts numerous stories which illustrate how little grace there is in this world and even in the church. Though the book does not include biblical proof texts, there is definitely a biblical undergirding in all that Yancey writes. He believes that grace was not only a theme of the apostle Paul, but of Jesus Himself. “He (Jesus) never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word. Instead he communicated grace through stories we know as parables.”
Yancey goes on to do a masterful job of putting some of Jesus’ parables into a modern setting. After telling some tales that keep your eyes glued to the page, he writes, “How different are these stories from my own childhood notions about God. I imagined a God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of the Father’s exhilaration – ‘This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’ – and then adds the buoyant phrase, “’they began to make merry.’”
Yancey speaks often of forgiveness in situations around the world where forgiveness is next to impossible, For example, seminary professor Samuel Moffat, who served as a missionary years ago in China, told Wheaton College students that the communists came in and destroyed his possessions, demolished his missionary station, and killed some of his friends. “When he left China he took with him a deep resentment against the followers of Chairman Mao, a resentment that metastasized inside him.” He faced a crisis of faith and realized “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.”
I could go on and on with powerful examples and insights from What’s So Amazing about Grace? However, let me tell you instead how this book affected me personally. It reminded me again that the gospel is message of grace and forgiveness, and that this message must be lived out in our daily lives around people that we may find very hard to love and in situations that go totally against some of our deepest moral convictions.
Why does the press speak so despairingly of evangelicals? Why does Hollywood portray us as narrow minded, unloving bigots? Why have we become almost embarrassed to admit to some people we meet that we attend an “evangelical” church? Yes, I know Jesus said we would be hated and persecuted as He was, but honestly I believe that much of what we experience today is because of the way we evangelicals have acted on a personal level, as well as a societal level.
Lord, have mercy on us and show us a better way.